The dispute over the territory known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan (and the U.S.) and as the Diaoyu Islands in China has all the makings of a Tom Clancy thriller.
The 73-year-old Japanese Finance Minister, Tadahiro Matsushita was found hanged -- not death by seppuku -- in his home on suicide prevention day.
The newly appointed Ambassador to China for Japan was found dead on a street in Japan at age 60 before he could take up his duties in China.
The wife of Bo Xilai, a top contender for the top seat in the Chinese Politboro, is in prison facing a death sentence for the murder of a British businessman. The murder was revealed when one of his top aides, now sentenced to 15 years in prison, tried to defect to the United States and revealed his role in the cover-up.
Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara (79) and author of the controversial late 1980s book The Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be the First Among Equals (irreverently known as "get lost America, we can covertly rearm, develop nuclear capabilities, close U.S. bases, and handle our own defense") inflamed relations between China and Japan by engineering the government's purchase of the Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese citizen.
Isihara's son Nobuteru (55) is the one of the candidates for leadership of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, and if the party wins the election, he could possibly become Prime Minister of Japan if he can win out over Ishiba and Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan. Update September 26, 2012: Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, just won the top spot in the Liberal Democratic Party and will run against incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in the nationwide elections.
The car of the U.S. Ambassador to China was swarmed by protesters, and the melee was quickly broken up by Chinese security forces.
U.S. Presidential candidates are silent on Asian tensions, seemingly engrossed in an adolescent battle of embarrassing sound bites.
Riots have broken out in China over the disputed Islands, even though the islands were never under Chinese rule. (Note: Which isn't to say China doesn't believe the islands were part of its territory, only that the islands were apparently vacant when Japan annexed them in 1895. Please see clarification below.) The Japanese believe the islands belong to Japan. The Japanese Defense Minister takes comfort from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell's acknowledgement that the islands fall under the umbrella of the U.S.'s security pact with Japan.
All this is happening when there's a power vacuum in China (between elections), a power vacuum in Japan (same reason), and a power vacuum in the U.S. (our elections are in November).
As it happens, it appears that the dispute is really all about the right to explore for potential oil reserves around the islands' waters.
The Japanese Finance Minister had prostate cancer and was investigating insider trading. He may or may not have had a say in whether the government should buy the islands. But his alleged suicide seemed to stem from an extra-marital affair he had with a 70 year-old Ginza bar hostess. She was retired, asked him for money, and when he refused, she sold her story to the tabloids.
The death of the newly appointed ambassador to China for Japan appears for now to be just a sad coincidence of timing.
China's Bo Xilai scandal is a tawdry story of corruption and greed.
Sentiment within Japan's business community seems to be (based on my limited and unscientific sampling) that provoking war with China is insane, and the purchase of the islands was an unnecessary irritant. Yet the Japanese government provoked tensions with the purchase of the Islands, and the political spin in China is that this is about national integrity rather than oil exploration rights. If the Chinese invade the islands, Japan will likely fight for them, and the U.S. would be dragged into the conflict.
If there is a conflict, it won't matter whether you call them the Senkaku Islands or the Diaoyo Islands. The important thing to remember is that everyone hopes they are the Oil islands.
Endnote: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) report of September 25, 2012 the arguments for rights are as follows:
The Daioyu/Senkaku Islands consist of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks. Approximately 120 nautical miles southwest of Okinawa, the islands are situated on a continental shelf with the Xihu/Okinawa trough to the south separating them from the nearby Ryukyu Islands.
Japan assumed control of Taiwan and the Daioyu/Senkaku islands after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Upon Japan's defeat in World War II, Japan returned Taiwan to China, but made no specific mention of the disputed islands in any subsequent document.
For several decades after 1945, the United States administered the islands as part of the post-war occupation of Okinawa. The islands generated little attention during this time, though U.S. oil companies conducted minimal exploration in the area. In 1969, a report by the UN Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas (CCOP) indicated possible large hydrocarbon deposits in the waters around the Daioyu/Senkaku islands, reigniting interest in the area. Although China had not previously disputed Japanese claims, the PRC claimed the islands in May 1970 after Japan and Taiwan held talks on joint exploration of energy resources in the East China Sea. When the United States and Japan signed the Okinawa Reversion Treaty returning the disputed islands to Japanese control as part of the Okinawa islands, both the PRC and Taiwan challenged the treaty.
China claims the disputed land based on historic use of the islands as navigational aids. In addition, the government links the territory to the 1895 Shimonoseki Peace Treaty that removed Japanese claims to Taiwan and Chinese lands after World War II.
Japan claims that it incorporated the islands as vacant territory (terra nullius) in 1895 and points to continuous administration of the islands since that time as part of the Nansei Shoto island group. According to the Japanese, this makes ownership of the islands a separate issue from Taiwan and the Shimonoseki treaty. Japan cites the lack of Chinese demands on the area prior to 1970 as further validation for its claim.